On What I’m Telling My Kids About Opportunity [Outliers Series] - The Jose Vilson

On What I’m Telling My Kids About Opportunity [Outliers Series]

February 18, 2010

Keys in the Sand

In the previous essay, I discussed why I believe that opportunity and tenacity go hand-in-hand in a pendular relationship, even with the disproportionate balance of the discussion going more towards “hard work.” The struggle for opportunity is a battle many thinkers and advocates alike see as a critical component of finding equity in as many arenas as possible. In a country so proud of its opportunities for millions of citizens of many backgrounds to make “something” of themselves, there’s plenty of instances where the owners and bosses of the established order limit the opportunities to their liking, and often to the detriment of those we may consider hard-working.

With that said, when my students ask me, “Mr. Vilson, how do YOU think we’re going to make it up out of here?” Here, of course, meaning the metaphorical ghettos and impoverished neighborhoods they live in, and even subconsciously, the mentalities that persist in these neighborhoods, I’d say simply, “Work hard.”

That sounds rather hypocritical that I’d perpetuate that stance even after I just told hundreds of adults online that there should be a balance. However, if we look at the context of what I might say (and have said), it falls right in line with maintaining that balance.

For many of our youth, the idea of instant gratification has become more prevalent, a huge side effect of capitalism (the merits of which I won’t explicitly debate here). Everyday, my students are exposed to images that tell them that a) if you just do x-y-z, then you’ll get on this screen in front of millions of people, b) if you want something, it’s really easy to get it, and c) you don’t need to know much about what you see because things are really as simple as they’re displayed.

To expound upon the first point, I see many of my boys gravitate towards men such as Kobe Bryant, Jay-Z, and Jamie Foxx. These three gentlemen, among plenty of others, represent some of the hottest and successful in their respective fields. Yet, all my students see is that they’ve made it on the screen or the radio, and because they make their craft look so simple, my boys are deceived by these instant snapshots delivered at them rather than the more concrete evidence of their long, sleepless nights, tireless practice, and years of disappointment and failure to get to their positions. While it’s true that many of their opportunities were fairly lucky, and some were privileged enough to know the right people and have the proper upbringing, none of the success happens without a tub of elbow grease.

None.

Basketball courts and tabletops certainly come in abundance in my boys’ neighborhoods, and likely so does a certain level of competition. For that matter, so do get-rich-quick opportunities, illegal or otherwise. These opportunities come in abundance, and the right conditions can multiply the allure of selling drugs or buying into pyramid schemes. In spaces where they’re told that their parents work hard through a blue-collar job but their society undervalues it by only giving those workers enough to have a shabby square of an apartment, it’s easy to see why one might choose these options. The code for these occupations, thusly, is “ hustle,” because the returns on the investment come much quicker than a 9-5, but the risks involved often lead those involved to having to “run.”

From what is often the variable.

Therefore, when I tell my students that hard work and dedication is the key, I’m more implying a few counterpoints:

We’re all working towards building bigger and better opportunities and equity across this space.
We have a long way to go before we get there, but I believe we can make it happen by believing in that balance, and having some discipline in what we do there.
Most occupations worth their weight in salt can exist without that balance of tenacity and opportunity, because when the balance gets out of order, the risk becomes a factor in that occupation.

As we teeter in our imbalances, I can only hope that we as thought leaders keep these things in mind as our culture obfuscates the ideas of opportunity with what we see on the screen. Particularly with the heightened rapidity of globalization and computer engineering’s huge influence on that speed, if we don’t seek to balance this, we’ll see a wider gap that many of our communities simply can’t withstand.

Let’s not miss another opportunity here.

Mr. Vilson, who really doesn’t like case studies too much …

This post was written by...

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

For more about me, read here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

JP February 18, 2010 at 7:44 pm

In the ideal world we would, of course, like to see Stephen jay Gould’s “lack of opportunity” eliminated as a varible:
“I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

In our more realistic world, we can still gain hope from Ben E. King’s
“Spanish Harlem” where a rose can grow up through the concrete.

I guess what I’m saying is that all that you can do is plant the seeds, and against all the odds, some roses will break through, creating the cracks for even more. Be a rose and create a crack, however small, for others.

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